Ark. court rules student government task force meetings can be private

ARKANSAS — A Benton County Circuit Court judge hasruled that a task force designed to revamp the University of Arkansas studentgovernment does not need to hold its meetings in public. Skinner Layne,president of the University of Arkansas’ student senate, which is thestudent government’s legislative body, filed suit against the school Feb.17 after he was shut out of an administration-headed task force meeting on Feb.13. Chancellor John White created the task force to make recommendations for anew constitution that would restructure student government at the publicuniversity in Fayetteville.“I think that any body that makesrecommendations or decisions concerning public policy should be open to thepublic,” said Layne, who is not a lawyer but represented himselfthroughout the trial.But Benton County Circuit Court Judge Xollie Duncanruled March 3 that because the task force is an advisory committee and not adecision-making body, the language of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Actdoes not require the task force to hold its meetings in public.Duncandid, however, agree with Layne’s position on the issue and criticized theuniversity’s tactics in her ruling, calling them “verydangerous.”The Arkansas Times, a commercial newspaper inLittle Rock, took up Layne’s cause in an editorial Feb. 20 saying that“a university, of all places, should be open to publicscrutiny.”But public scrutiny is precisely what the task force wastrying to avoid when it voted to hold its meetings in private.“Wewanted the opportunity to have free and open dialogue,” said JohnettaCross Brazzell, the chairwoman of the task force. “The students [on thetask force] felt very strongly that it would be impossible to do that if therewere members of the press or any other individuals present who were not a partof the task force.”There are 22 task force members, a majority ofthem students. The task force was a response to students’ complaints thattheir needs were not being adequately addressed by the student government, whichwas burdened by a sour relationship between the executive and legislativebodies, said Cross Brazzell, who is also the vice chancellor for studentaffairs.Student members of the task force were not elected by thestudent body, but were selected by the school’s office of studentaffairs.“We were quite deliberate in who we chose. We wantedstudents who were going to be thoughtful in the process and who were not caughtup in the frenzy of everything that was going on,” Cross Brazzellsaid.But to Layne, the creation of the task force reeked of politics,especially since the student government adopted a new constitution only lastJune. Layne believes the administration’s strong-arm tactics are just away to impose its will over the student body and studentgovernment.“I think [the administration]’s main chargeagainst the student government is that we’re political We have anadministration that is almost socialist in its ideology. They don’t likedissent. They encourage free speech until it criticizes them. They don’twant change unless it’s their change,” Layne said.Thestudent body is scheduled to have a referendum vote on the task force-developedconstitution April 8 and 9. Regardless of the outcome, however, the task forcewill present the election results and the new constitution to the chancellor. Ifthe chancellor approves the document, he will pass it along to the board oftrustees. If the board adopts the constitution, it becomes binding, CrossBrazzell said.For Layne, those administrative actions underscore theimportance of open government and public bodies functioning in the public. Hedoes not plan on giving up, although he said an appeal was unlikely because hedoes not have the funds to hire an attorney.“We’re stillfighting to see that students are represented, that the administrationdoesn’t unilaterally impose its will and that it becomesaccountable to the public, which is something that the currentuniversity administration is simply not willing to do,” Laynesaid.Layne is also considering lobbying the Arkansas General Assembly tomodify the language of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when it beginsits session in January 2005.